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What is a Chronograph and How Does It Work?

What is a Chronograph? In its simplest form, a chronograph is a stopwatch. But the making of one, and of its different variations, is another story.

Easily one of the most alluring watches on the market, especially the sports watch market, is the chronograph. Essentially, a chronograph indicates not just the hours, minutes and seconds, but also acts as a stopwatch so that the wearer can time the start and stop of an event,  such as running a lap.

Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Selfwinding Chronograph
Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Selfwinding Chronograph

For decades, people have been attracted to chronographs first and foremost for the look. A chronograph generally features anywhere from two or three (or sometimes even four) subsidiary dials on the main dial that track different intervals of time. Often, the subsidiary dials are a different color than the main dial – sometimes in a monochromatic scheme and other times in contrasting tones. For instance, white sub-dials on a black dial, or vice versa, often referred to as a panda and reverse panda dial. Additionally, often the hand that tracks the seconds for the stopwatch feature runs from the center of the dial and is in a bright bold color such as red or orange.  The look of the different colored dials and seconds hand is typically very attractive. Some people never even use the function, they just buy the look.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

History of the Chronograph

The chronograph was invented by Louis Moinet in 1816, but it wasn’t given that name until five years later in 1821 when Nicolas Rieussec developed his version and marketed it with the name chronograph, which stems from the Greek word chrono (time). Those early time writers were predominantly created to time horse races. However, once their mechanisms were perfected, they became used in pocket watches and later wristwatches to time all sorts of events.

Jean-Marie Schaller CEo Louis Moinet with the first ever chronograph 1816
Jean-Marie Schaller, CEO Louis Moinet, with the Louis Moinet Chronograph from 1816

Over the centuries the chronograph has evolved in timing abilities, usage, and precision. Today, there are several types of chronographs to measure continuous and discontinuous events and to measure multiple events at once. Additionally, depending on the complexity of the chronograph, it can measure from a fifth of a second to a tenth of a second and, most recently, to 1/100th of a second – ensuring no room for error when timing something.

Zenith Chronomaster Sport white dial
Zenith Chronomaster Sport, accurate to 1/100th of a second

Today’s chronographs also offer different types of indications of the time it is tracking. For instance, some use subsidiary dials placed harmoniously around the main face, while others line the subsidiary dials up horizontally in a row, and yet others use tracks to gauge the time. Depending on the brand and the model, a chronograph can time events for short periods of time (such as under an hour) or for longer periods – often up to 12 hours. Some work off of a single crown – called a monopusher, while others use two pushers (one on either side of the crown) to control all of the stop watch functions. It is really a matter of personal preference when it comes to an aesthetic choice, and of precision and performance when it comes to the timing aspect.

Montblanc 1858 Momopusher Chronograph bronze limited edition
Montblanc 1858 Momopusher Chronograph Bronze Limited Edition

The making of a chronograph

All complicated watches that offer functions other than just hour, minutes and seconds, are challenging to create. Each type of complication has its own nuances. However, the mechanical chronograph is really no easy feat for watchmakers. They have many working parts that feed off of one another to perfectly track the event. This requires multiple gears with tiny spokes and teeth that all interlock and work like an orchestrated dance with the levers and pushers.

Hublot Classic Fusion Aerofusion Chronograph UEFA Champions League™
Hublot Classic Fusion Aerofusion Chronograph UEFA Champions League™

Types of Chronographs

As mentioned, a chronograph can be operated off of a monopusher or dual pushers but the simple chronograph measures the hours, minutes and seconds of an event from start to finish. The user pushes the button once to start the timing and then again to end the timing and a third time to set the hands back to zero so he or she can begin timing again.

Delma Heritage Chronograph Limited Edition
Delma Heritage Chronograph Limited Edition

There are also more complex chronographs that include a flyback chronograph and a split-second or Rattrapante chronograph. The Flyback chronograph is essentially a chronograph with a rapid-reset feature. When the stopwatch is stopped, the hands automatically fly back to zero to begin measuring again, as opposed to a simple chronograph where the user has to push the button a third time for the hands to return to zero before they can start timing again. This sort of function is particularly useful, for example, for relay races, where, as each runner hands off the baton to the next runner, the user can time each one from start to finish with a simple two pushers.

H. Moser & Cie Streamliner Flyback Chronograph Automatic Funky Blue
H. Moser & Cie Streamliner Flyback Chronograph Automatic Funky Blue

The Split- Seconds or Rattrapante chronograph is a the most complex of the lot. Essentially, the mechanical systems of this type of watch enable the wearer to measure multiple events that all start at the same time but have different ending times – such as timing each horse as it makes it through the finish line. Split-second chronographs are often quite a bit more expensive than regular chronographs and flyback chronographs because of their complexity in terms of number of components and time to assemble.

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Split-Seconds Chronograph Ultra-Thin - Collection Excellence Platine
Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Split-Seconds Chronograph Ultra-Thin – Collection Excellence Platine

Sometimes chronograph functions are also included in a watch with other functions, or their movements have been tested and certified that they are reliable and rugged enough for certain extreme temperatures or environments. A watch that is a COSC-certified chronometer is not a chronograph and should not be confused with one. However, a chronograph can be inside a  certified chronometer movement. You might also find a chronograph paired with a calendar in some watches, a pulsimeter or tachymeter in others,  or with some other function. Either way, a chronograph watch of any level is a great conversation piece.

About the Author

Roberta Naas - Watch Journalist
Roberta Naas

Roberta Naas is a veteran watch and jewelry journalist who began her career in the early 1980’s, and was the first female watch journalist in the United States. She is the editor and founder of the authoritative watch blog, ATimelyPerspective, has written six books on watches, writes for numerous consumer publications (including Forbes and Elite Traveler) – and always brings forth in her work the essence of what makes watches tick. She tirelessly travels the world in search of watch news and stories that she turns into compelling and enlightening articles.

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